October 19, 2012

Is Amazon Publishing slowing down?

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The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Trachtenberg here takes a critical look at Amazon Publishing’s first season with a New York office. The Journal reports that the company’s most high-profile release yet—Penny Marshall’s memoir My Mother Was Nuts, for which Amazon paid an $800,000 advance—“has sold just 7,000 copies in hardcover, according to Nielsen BookScan.”

By comparison, actor Rob Lowe’s memoir, 2011′s Stories I Only Tell My Friends, published by Macmillan‘s Henry Holt & Co., sold 54,000 hardcover copies in its first four weeks. Not every celebrity memoir is a hit, of course, and Ms. Marshall hasn’t been in the limelight for a while. But a likely factor in the book’s poor sales is its severely limited availability… Russ Grandinetti, Amazon’s vice president of Kindle content, says e-book sales have been “much larger” that the book’s hardcover sales, although Amazon wouldn’t give details. Ms. Marshall’s book was No. 3 for two weeks on The Wall Street Journal’s best-seller nonfiction e-book list before falling off. Ms. Marshall’s literary agent declined to comment.

More importantly than the sales of Marshall’s book, however, is what the Journal reports about Amazon Publishing’s new editorial acquisitions, with “the number of big-name books signed by Amazon Publishing” having “slowed significantly this year.” One theory: that authors and agents are reluctant to sign with a publisher currently subject to a boycott by Barnes & Noble.

To one agent, Scott Waxman, the question becomes “whether Amazon Publishing will be able to make up the sales in other ways… [if] Amazon’s merchandising will bridge the gap.” If yes, Waxman speculates, “Amazon will get great books.”

The next big test for the newly expanded Amazon Publishing operation will come in November when it publishes Timothy Ferriss, whose previous release with Random House sold 1.15 million books. Ferriss tells the Journal he’s not happy that Barnes & Noble will refuse to sell his book:

I’ve always given Barnes & Noble preferential treatment and priority in my national-scale marketing and promotion, which has driven massive traffic to retail stores and BN.com, where my audience also buys other books … If Barnes & Noble’s goal is to increase market share and market cap, it’s a very strange time to turn on one of your best friends.

Kelly Burdick is the executive editor of Melville House.

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